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NASA, NSF Grants Will Fund Origins of Life Research at CCSU

recent research grantee Dr. Sarah Maurer examines samples in a lab at Copernicus Hall. (Photo by Marisa Nadolny)

By Marisa Nadolny

The bang was big, but life on earth emerged on the microscopic level — eventually.

From non-living material — meteorites, among other sources — simple organic compounds formed, setting in motion the long history of life on Earth.

Astrobiologists like Dr. Sarah Maurer, though, are taking a deeper look at the process that took us from Point A to Point B, or, as she explains, “The transition from the earth forming, and it being kind of a chemical mess, to being a more ordered, energetic form” from which life emerged.

Maurer has been studying the origins of life from a biochemical perspective since 2005, and the work literally paid off this summer in the form of three external research grants — two from NASA and one from the National Science Foundation —totaling more than $300,000. Maurer is the first professor in her department to win this type of external grant funding for research. NASA’s Connecticut Space Grant Consortium funded work from May to August 2017 on a project similar in scope.

Maurer’s proposal was one of 24 selected for funding from a pool of 173 entrants to NASA’s Research Opportunities in Space Science, Exobiology Program Element. NASA sent word to Maurer in April that she’d garnered full funding for her proposal titled, “Energy Transduction and Carbon-Fixation By Membrane-Bound Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons as an Early Photosynthetic Model.”

Maurer aims to examine in depth the complex carbons available on prebiotic earth and demonstrate how their interaction might have produced the first building blocks of life. Maurer suggests that they engaged in a process not unlike photosynthesis in plants, in which one form of energy is converted into another. If that is indeed the case, Maurer proposes to try to recreate that process and perhaps harness the energy it produces (a reduced form of carbon).

Put another way, Maurer wants to see if we can create life from scratch.

In her application Maurer notes, “Solar energy is one of the most abundant forms of energy in the universe. This energy can be harvested using light-absorbing molecules and turned into high energy chemicals through photosynthesis. This strategy for storing energy is likely to have contributed to the formation of life on Earth and serves as a potential energy source for life elsewhere in the universe.

“The work proposed … will take chemicals commonly found in meteorites and geological environments to build a photosynthetic cell. This cell will convert carbon dioxide into reduced carbon, such as formic acid. While the cell will be simpler and use UV-light, it represents a possible strategy for energy conversion on Earth prior to the formation of life 4.2 billion years ago, as well as on other planets today.”

Beyond a blueprint for early photosynthetic processes, Maurer’s work might raise big long-term possibilities for the energy industry. “If we can find a way to take all of the carbon dioxide from the air and put it back into hydrocarbon form, then we’ve solved the energy crisis,” she notes.

The three-year NSF grant, a collaborative project with Georgia Tech, will fund related research. Maurer’s team will explore whether water is required to produce living things. Can life emerge from oil-based environments, such as the ethane ocean on Saturn’s moon Titan? If so, that raises the question of whether scientists should continue to restrict the search for life elsewhere in the universe only to places with water.

The proposal, titled “Life out of Water - Possibility of Evolution in Nonaqueous Environments,” emerged at a 2016 Ideas Lab, an ongoing NSF initiative that brings together selected scientists to explore a timely topic in a “fertile, creative atmosphere, one that leads to fresh thinking and new approaches, and one that fosters team science,” according to NSF. Maurer was one of 29 participants selected from a pool of 100 to attend the Ideas Lab, and her team’s proposal was one of five that moved into the final round of five considered for full funding.

Maurer says a student once asked her what would happen if she managed to create life. Does that mean she’s “done”?

Quite the contrary, according to Maurer.

“If I create life, that is the beginning,” she says. “There is no end to this. It’s not like, if I achieve all the goals of this project, that I’m going to stop doing this work. It’ll just be a stepping stone to some other questions.”

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